Relatives of a renowned 19th century artist are calling for one of his most famous statues to be taken down. The towering Confederate monument has stood in Arlington National Cemetery for more than 100 years.
But after the racially charged, deadly violence in Charlottesville earlier this month, a group of family members from around the world, including one in Yellow Springs, wrote an open letter asking that it be removed from Arlington for good.
The family's request adds more fuel to the already heated debate over what to do with hundreds of Confederate monuments scattered around the United States.
The 32-foot-tall statue commissioned by the heritage organization United Daughters of the Confederacy is among a handful of Civil War monuments at Arlington National Cemetery.
Its creator had long Southern roots and a colorful biography. He was one of thousands of Jewish soldiers who fought and died on both sides of the Civil War battlefield.
“Moses Jacob Ezekiel was the first Jew to go to the Virginia Military Institute. He was a soldier in the Confederate Army,” says Judith Ezekiel.
In her Yellow Springs living room, Ezekiel says she’s proud of her relative’s many artistic achievements, which include a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia.
But, she says, the disturbing events in Charlottesville sparked a new family debate over what to do about Ezekiel’s Arlington monument.
It's also his grave site. Moses Ezekiel is buried at the base of the monument.
The 1914 statue depicts a woman wearing a crown of olive leaves. She’s described on the Arlington National Cemetery website as representing the South. Underneath her around the base of the statue is a series of other figures, including Confederate soldiers.
“And we see two black figures. One was apparently a servant to a soldier, and the other is the black 'mammy,'" she says. "That message is really toxic.”
The Arlington website offers more detail about the figures on the monument:
"Completing the frieze are six vignettes illustrating the effect of the war on Southerners of all races. The vignettes include a black slave following his young master; an officer kissing his infant child in the arms of her mammy; a blacksmith leaving his bellows and workshop as his sorrowful wife looks on; a young lady binding the sword and sash on her beau; and a young officer standing alone," the description reads.
Ezekiel, a visiting professor of women’s studies and African American studies at Wright State University, says the statue’s images justify slavery and imply that African Americans colluded in their own bondage.
In the wake of Charlottesville, she says some relatives wanted to change the way the statue is presented in its current location. Others wanted to destroy it. The emotional discussion on Facebook about what, if anything, could be done about the monument lasted almost eight hours, Ezekiel says.
“Some people said leave it there but put statues of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass around it. One person said melt it down, it's worse to have that reminder than to support any form of injustice and inequality," she says. "In the end we compromised and we just said, put it in a museum where it's contextualized and where its history is explained.”
The multigenerational group of 22 family members sent a letter to the Washington Post calling for Ezekiel’s Confederate monument to be taken down.
The letter reads:
“One of the most important memorials to the Confederacy is the statue at Arlington National Cemetery, unveiled in 1914. It was sculpted by Moses Jacob Ezekiel, a former Confederate soldier and a prominent sculptor of his time. Ezekiel was our relative. Like most such monuments, this statue intended to rewrite history to justify the Confederacy and the subsequent racist Jim Crow laws. It glorifies the fight to own human beings, and, in its portrayal of African Americans, implies their collusion. As proud as our family may be of Moses’s artistic prowess, we — some twenty Ezekiels — say remove that statue. Take it out of its honored spot in Arlington National Cemetery and put it in a museum that makes clear its oppressive history.”
Ezekiel says the family hasn't yet received a response from cemetery officials.
“Does it matter that we're family members or not? And some people would say it doesn't. But if it can attract attention, and if it can show that even though the memory of this cousin of mine and the importance of him culturally is significant –– and I would like to see it preserved –– it's not worth maintaining racist imagery. The racist Confederate monuments need to go elsewhere.”
But it's clear not everyone agrees Confederate monuments need to go.
That was the message at a protest in Franklin, a city in Warren County where officials recently removed a nearly century old Confederate plaque overnight.
Standing on the grass holding a large Confederate flag, 41-year-old Franklin resident Robert L. Fisher Jr. says it's important to preserve Confederate monuments, even when they may be seen as offensive by others.
“How will we teach our kids when we no longer have none of our monuments for the history? They’re erasing our history from right beneath our feet," he says. "No one’s history should be taken from them, no matter what it is.”
Confederate monuments have long held a powerful place in American history and the battle over African Americans’ civil rights, says University of Cincinnati History Professor Christopher Phillips.
He points out many Americans may not realize the majority of the country’s Confederate monuments were actually erected decades after the end of the Civil War.
“Some of the grandest Confederate monuments put up during the 1920's. It's also the era when the Ku Klux Klan was ascendant,” he says. "That particular historical period also was the depth of race relations in the United States, also known as the era of segregation or Jim Crow."
Historically, Phillips says, outbursts of racial unrest in the U.S. have often coincided with eras of populist rhetoric similar to what we're seeing under the Trump administration.
Despite decades of progress on civil rights, he says many Americans remain divided over how the nation should remember its past.
And toppling Confederate monuments alone will not settle the debate.
“The worst way to approach this is to simply remove them, however it’s accomplished, without thinking about the broader implications. And that is that they can be used as teaching tools, which we desperately need on the subject,” he says.
Phillips says more education about the Civil War, the history of the Confederate flag and other symbols will help heal the cultural divide.
But, the pace of social change is often slow.